Beautiful Ruins tells the story of Dee Moray, an up-and-coming actress in the 1960s, who gets a part in Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and whose life gets changed dramatically by her trip to Italy for the filming. It is also the story of Claire Silver, assistant to legendary producer Michael Deane, who got his big break working on Cleopatra and is now nearly washed up. It is also the story of Pasquale Tursi, the young Italian trying to run his father's hotel in Porto Vergogna, Italy, where Dee Moray stays briefly in 1962. It is also so many more stories and the story of all humanity:
Every love is the same love, and it is overpowering - the wrenching grace of what it is to be human. We love. We try. We die alone. (129-130)If this quote makes the book sound dark, that's because, well, it is. At parts, at least. Walter can be fantastically funny, but even at his most lighthearted, he colors everything with the appropriate tenor of reality, which is often not much funny at all. In Beautiful Ruins, Alvis Bender is a failed writer who only completes one chapter of his great book. That chapter is included in the text, and it is a masterpiece. In it, a character (based on Bender himself) has the following exchange with a woman he has just met and told he is writing a book about the war.
She became somber. Writing a book was an important thing to do, she said, not a joke.
"Oh, no," I said, "I don't mean to joke about it. I don't mean that sort of funny."
She asked what other kind of funny there was and I didn't know what to say. We were within sight of her village, a cluster of gray shadows that sat like a cap on the dark hill in front of us.
"The sort of funny that makes you sad, too," I said. (86)The sort of funny that makes you sad, too. That's Jess Walter's writing in a nutshell. This great chapter also includes some of my favorite lines:
Such a horrible formality, the end of a war. (73)
God, this life is a cold, brittle thing. (88)and
Years passed, and I found myself still a husk, still in that moment, still in the day my war ended, the day I realized, like all survivors must, that being alive isn't the same thing as living. (88)This book is totally different from The Zero, which I loved. It is completely different from The Financial Lives of Poets, which is hilarious and wonderful. It is less caustic, more romantic, perhaps more traditional than both. But it is not weaker. In fact, the vast distance between these three books demonstrates Walter's amazing range, his gifted voice, and his incredible talent for creating memorable, fully realized characters. He is a marvel, and if you aren't reading him yet, you should be. You can start on June 12th.
One last notable line to lighten the mood a bit:
but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant - sail for Asia and stumble on America - and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along. (284)